Steve Himmer Guest Edits for SLQ April 20-26
Steve will be sending a copy of his novel Fram to the author whose story he selects as part of his reading week.
“Oscar is a minor bureaucrat in the Bureau of Ice Prognostication, a secret government agency created during the heyday of the Cold War and still operating in the present without the public’s knowledge. Tasked with inventing discoveries and settlements in the Arctic, then creating the paperwork and digital records to “prove” their existence-preventing the inconvenience and expense of actual exploration-the job is the closest Oscar has come to his boyhood dream of being a polar explorer. Fantasy becomes all too real when Oscar and his partner Alexi are sent on a secret mission to the actual Arctic, which brings them into a mysterious tangle of rival espionage that grows more dangerous the farther north they travel. The trip also allows Oscar to reconnect with his wife, Julia, from whom he’s grown alienated by years of lying about what he does for a living (a distance compounded by Julia’s own secret government job), leading both of them to discover what can be lost if we let one part of ourselves—or one part of a story—distract us from everything else the world offers.” ~Ig Publishing
Tell us about the writing and researching process for Fram.
The research process was many years long, though I didn’t always what the research was for—lots of it was just reading about things I was interested in. I graduated in 1999 with a BA in anthropology, and my final project was a study of Arctic exploration and the colonial metaphors of race, gender, and nature it produced. I read piles of books about the Arctic, and just about everything written about the Arctic in National Geographic over the life of the magazine. I thought that work would continue to be a PhD in anthropology but to my great, sad surprise not one PhD program accepted me. That’s when I began writing fiction more seriously, and years later, after several other (mostly unpublished) novels I returned to my stack of that research and began turning it into a story instead of a scholarly book as I’d planned. Then that story turned into a novel. Well, it turned into a terrible draft of something vaguely resembling a novel, and I kept going from there.
What do you think the opening of a story (flash or long) should do?
More than anything, it needs to hit me with a voice. It’s frustratingly hard to say quite how that happens, but it’s quickly apparent when a writer is in control of the voice on the page, and when that voice is deliberate, and the confidence of that pulls me in. I want to trust that the writer knows what they’re doing, and has a reason for doing it, whether they’re rambling or terse or funny or sad or whatever. And I tend to respond most quickly to something concrete that puts me right away in the space of the story, and not only in a writer’s head.
Let’s pretend all of time and space is available to us. Where or what do you wish you had discovered? And! (Because I am one of the awful people who likes to ask multi-part questions) How do you think making that discovery would’ve affected you as a writer?
I wish I had discovered a seven book series about a boy wizard and his friends battling an evil menace! But I would also love to discover an island, preferably small one in the north Atlantic—in the Hebrides, or Orkney, or Faroe, or even among the Boston Harbor Islands which I can see from the edge of my neighborhood. Because if I’d discovered one of those islands I could build a writing hut on it without needing to be rich enough to buy the island. The Boston Harbor Islands would be best, probably, because I could keep my job and just kayak out to the island to write, I suppose. The way Richard Flanagan does, the lucky so-and-so. If I’d discovered my island a while ago, it probably would have affected my writing by keeping me offline more and more focused on the landscape (and seascape) around me, so I suspect my style and subjects would reflect that — though most of what I write is already full of both landscapes and networks, so maybe it wouldn’t change all that much. I might get more writing done, though, if I wasn’t distracted by always exploring the island.
What stories (and please include links if they’re legally available online) do you find yourself returning to?
The stories I go back to again and again are often about place as much as anything else. I find myself returning to collections, probably more often than individual stories, because I’m longing for the landscape of them. I’ve reread George Mackay Brown’s stories many times because I’m in a mood to visit his depiction of Orkney, and it’s the same with Henry Lawson’s Australian bush. There are others that capture a moment in my life, a reader I was, like Amy Hempel’s Reasons to Live and Helen Garner’s Postcards from Surfers, each of which I remember distinctly being amazed by on first reading and I go back to them to recapture that energy.
How do you think editing Necessary Fiction has influenced your writing?
Editing has been an enormous influence. Reading submissions—which I did first for Ploughshares before taking on Necessary Fiction—is a great way to learn what’s being written out there. Not so bluntly as “knowing the competition,” but discovering how many of the submissions I read are, essentially, the same stories or types of stories over and over pushed me to find what was most distinctly my own in the stories I write. Because I realized I had written all of those “types” many times, and that other people were often doing it better—those are the stories that stand out. And this part will sound much bleaker than I mean it, perhaps, but editing has actually shown me I’m not at my best writing stories—I’m so awed by the stories I read as submissions and in other journals that it’s clear my most original work comes in longer forms. So ironically I write far fewer short stories now than I did a few years ago, which I’m fine with because I’m proud of having helped so many stories by other writers find an audience.
There’s also the more pragmatic influence—I’ve met so many writers, editors, and readers through Necessary Fiction, some of whom are now good friends and generous professional contacts. People talk so much about “literary citizenship,” and I’ll admit to having an ambivalent relationship to that term, but deciding to take on Necessary Fiction (which folks may not know began as the online wing of a print press, So New Publishing) is without a doubt one of the best decisions I’ve made as a writer. At the end of the day, seeing stories from Necessary Fiction win awards or be anthologized, or being able to help other writers connect with agents or publishers for books grown from stories we published is an incredible feeling, often even more satisfying than publishing something myself.
About the Reader:
Steve Himmer is author of the novels Fram, The Bee-Loud Glade, and Scratch (forthcoming in 2016). His stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in publications including the Millions, Ploughshares, Post Road, Hobart, 3:AM Magazine, and the Los Angeles Review. He teaches at Emerson College in Boston, and edits the web journal Necessary Fiction.